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Game Breakdown, Lehigh at Princeton, 9/26/2015

We break down the Princeton game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.

It's rare that I talk about last week's opponent in this space, especially when the focus should really be on how to beat Princeton.  But Penn's 24-13 win over No. 4 Villanova was so stunning to this reporter and such a great thing for head coach Ray Priore's Quakers that it's worth mentioning here.

It was a result that seemed to even stun Penn's head coach, who earned a whopper of a first win thanks to winning the time of possession battle (holding onto the ball for more than 39 minutes on offense), benefiting from Villanova miscues (a roughing-the-punter call kept one Penn drive alive that ended in a touchdown) and making huge plays (as the Wildcats were driving to score, Penn LB Tyler Drake strip-sacked Villanova's quarterback, leading LB Donald Panicello to scoop and score a 92 yard touchdown return).

"Wow, just wow," Priore said after the game. "You know, you keep trying and trying and praying and praying. It had to happen sooner or later, right?"


Penn Upsetting Villanova(Yong Kim/Philadelia Inquirer)
Lehigh's win over Penn was just one game.  Similarly, Penn's win over Villanova was just one game.

But it has to make Lehigh fans feel great that last week the Mountain Hawks didn't just beat that same Penn team last week, they largely dominated them from start to finish.

The stat lines are an interesting contrast, too.

Lehigh created 495 yards of total offense last weekend, much of it behind the play of junior QB Nick Shafnisky - Nova ended the game with only 281 total yards.

The Mountain Hawks held onto the ball on offense for 36 minutes.  Villanova?  20 minutes.

Lehigh held Penn to 3-of-10 on 3rd down conversions.  The Wildcats allowed 8-of-18 3rd down conversions.

Again, it's just one game.  And we still don't really know what Penn, Lehigh and Villanova will accomplish this season.  But suddenly, Lehigh's win over Penn can't simply be considered just any other win against the Ivy League.  It is possible that the Mountain Hawk victory will be something more when the final book on the 2015 season is written.

Back to Princeton.

Breaking Down Princeton
Offense

If there's one calling card of head coach Bob Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry's offense at Princeton, it's "up-tempo".   Like many teams Lehigh has been facing, most notably James Madison, the pace of the offense is breakneck, trying to maximize the number of offensive possessions.  Last week against Lafayette the Tigers ran 78 plays, and it could have easily been more had Princeton not been nursing a 40-0 shutout deep into that game.

They're also know for a bit of trickery, sometimes lining up two, or three quarterbacks in offensive formations.  At times, they've been too clever by half, though.

"The expectation is they're going to have the multiple quarterbacks out there, they're going to play really fast, they're going to run reverses and other trick-type plays and get you unbalanced and one guy ineligible and the guy that needs to cover him gets lost ... all those type of things," head coach Andy Coen said this week. "Really, it's a pain in the neck for the defensive staff to try to put together what they need to do. But at the end of the day, they're gonna run it and they're gonna pass it and you gotta be able to defend it."

Unlike a couple of years ago, Princeton is running the same type of base three-wideout, single back set that Lehigh runs these days.  Two years ago Princeton ran a pro set with a conventional fullback - no more.  Again, this is similar to James Madison's offense.

Princeton QB Chad Kanoff
Going into the season, there was some debate as to whom Princeton's quarterback would be.  QB Brett Epperly graduated, and there were three legitimate possibilities battling in camp for the starting role.  In the end, junior QB Chad Kanoff ended up winning the battle.

Of special interest last weekend was that Kanoff had a fairly good day through the air in his first Division I start (20/31 passing, 1 TD, 1 INT), but he wasn't particularly involved in the running game that ground out 308 net yards against Lafayette.  (In fact without his -4 rushing yards, the yardage total would have been even greater.)

“Having followed Princeton football since I was recruited in 1985, he’s probably as good a pure thrower as anybody we have had,” Surace said in this interview. “And that includes Doug Butler, Jason Garrett, Chad Roghair and all the guys who are more recent. He just throws the ball so well. He has gotten stronger and he is a good athlete.”

Princeton RB DiAndre Atwater
Last week Kanoff confirmed that he's a fairly efficient pocket passer, willing to let the running backs shoulder the load on the ground.  That's not to say that he can't take off - at 6'4, 225 lbs, he seems fairly athletic - but that's not what he did last week.  What he did amply prove is if you give him time to pick you apart, he clearly has that capability, more than justifying Surace's impressions.

Most of the considerable damage done to Lafayette in the run game was performed by a pair of scary, small running backs: 5'9 senior RB DiAndre Atwater (147 all-purpose yards) and 5'5 senior RB Dre Nelson (165 all-purpose yards, 1 TD).

Atwater is the son of the former NFL safety Steve Atwater, and when healthy has been a terror for opposing defenses both running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield.  However, he has yet to be healthy for an entire season.  It's his pairing with Nelson, however, that was near-impossible for Lafayette to stop last weekend.  Once Princeton started alternating the two backs and occasionally switching them, they really started to pile points on the Leopards.

Princeton WR Seth DeValve
When Princeton needed to go through the air, Kanoff more often than not looked for 6'6 senior WR Seth DeValve, and found him six times for 72 yards.  DeValve, who returned after only playing two games in 2014 due to injury, seems every bit like the receiver he was expected to be that season before getting hurt.  That's a big problem for opposing defensive coordinators.

Junior WR Trevor Osborne and junior WR James Frusciante also caught some passes last Saturday, but it's their blocking downfield that can make short passes to DeValve and Atwater into giant plays, something for Lehigh's defense to key on this week.  Junior TE Scott Carpenter didn't have any catches last weekend, but he's been a part of Princeton's offensive attack in the past.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic line for Princeton last weekend was the line Sacks Allowed: 0.  Along with the 301 yards rushing, that's a testament to the Tigers smallish, athletic offensive line.  Princeton's "O" lines for at least a decade have a reputation as being light, athletic and great technique.  Senior OL Spenser Huston is a two-time All-Ivy League lineman in 2012 and 2013, and will make his season debut tomorrow night against Lehigh according to the game notes.

There's a lot of "if healthy..." in this offense.  If everyone stays healthy, there is every reason to believe that this team can compete for the Ivy League title.  There's a lot of talent there on offense.  The trick has been keeping them on the field.

Defense

Princeton runs a base 3-4 that, obviously, had a great game last weekend, shutting out Lafayette for three and a half quarters.  Ten of eleven starters return from last year's team, including a guy that could get a look at playing on Sundays.

Senior CB Anthony Gaffney
Senior CB Anthony Gaffney is a 6'3, 210 lb speedster who has started every game in his Ivy League career.  Despite teams throwing away from him, he was still all-Ivy League last year and notched 3 interceptions.

He anchors a veteran secondary which consists of a lot of veteran players: senior SS Khamal Brown, junior FS Dorian Williams, and senior CB John Hill.

Princeton's secondary did give up some yards this past weekend, but Lafayette was pretty much forced to abandon the running game after falling so far behind.  Even with an obvious second half Lafayette gameplan, Princeton only allowed 220 yards through the air.  I view this group as a very solid bunch.

The front seven had a fairly good day last weekend as well.

Sophomore DE Kurt Holuba, who of all things caught a 1 yard TD pass, capped off a fantastic weekend last weekend with that TD grab, also notching 6 tackles and a sack.  The 6'4, 270 pound sophomore has been singled out by Surace as playing very well the second half of last season and he has definitely carried that over thus far.

All three defensive linemen are large and did a very good job winning the line of scrimmage last weekend vs. Lafayette, holding them to 2.4 average yards per rush.

Equally as worryingly, Princeton also boasts an experienced group of linebackers as well.  Last week, junior LB R.J. Paige (7 tackles) led the Tigers in tackles, while junior LB Rohan Hylton, senior LB Marcus Stroud and senior LB Matt Arends also feature.

Princeton RB Dre Nelson
Special Teams

As far back as I can remember Princeton's special team units have been spectacular, and this year is no exception.

Senior PK Nolan Bieck was a 1st team All-Ivy kicker last season and already has a 45 yard field goal to his credit.  Suffice it to say he has the leg to convert the long tries.  Interestingly, he didn't put a single kickoff into the end zone, however.

Junior P Tyler Roth had one punt against Lafayette - a 53 yarder.  Enough said.

Princeton has two guys returning kickoffs and punts - senior RB Dre Nelson, always a scary threat whenever he touches the ball, and junior DB Max Lescano, who had a 15 yard return.  So, yeah, plenty to be scared of all around here.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Win Defensive Trench Battle.  The biggest takeaway I had from the Lafayette game was how handily Princeton won the battle in the trench on offense, keeping pressure off Kanoff and easily cycling their incredible running back combo.  Any Lehigh win will have at its core doing a better job than Lafayette did controlling the defensive line of scrimmage.  That means getting to Kanoff, preferably with a healthy sophomore DE Tyler Cavenas, and plugging those running seams with an effective junior LB Colton Caslow.  The more we hear Cavenas' and Caslow's name called on defense, the better.
2. Touchbacks.  Freshman PK Ed Mish has done a great job this early going, but one underrated element of his game has been kickoffs and preventing opponents from getting returns.  It would be a great idea for Mish and senior P Austin Devine to have as a part of their gameplan to minimize the return game.  That would neutralize one of Princeton's biggest weapons.
3. The Deep Game.  Princeton's defensive coordinators have probably seen the Penn game film and seen Lehigh's effective run game.  I'm sensing it might be a good idea to take some deep shots downfield, especially if they cheat up to try to take away the running of freshman RB Dom Bragalone and junior QB Nick Shafnisky.  Break one of those big plays, especially early, and it could make a big differnet.

Fearless Prediction

Princeton and Lehigh are asking the same questions about their teams.  How good are we, really?  That fact makes this game very difficult to pick.

Is recent history any guide?  Well, if it was, I certainly wouldn't have picked Penn to upset No. 4 Villanova.  Certainly Penn wasn't a terrible team last weekend, but on the heels of that performance the last thing I would have predicted was their offense holding onto the ball for nearly 40 minutes and being so dominant on defense.

Princeton looked like a Top 25 team against Lafayette.  But is that indicative of anything?  Lafayette has a history against Princeton, affectionately called "The Curse" in Leopard circles.  They can't beat them anytime, anywhere.  They've gone 40-4-3 against them in their history.

It's probably a safe bet to say that Penn's not as good, or bad, as they've shown in consecutive games, and Princeton's are probably not as dominant as they were last weekend.  But where does that leave us?

If there's one statistic that profoundly worries me, it's Lehigh's yards per rush allowed on defense.  Even though Lehigh beat Penn last weekend, the Mountain Hawks still let up 6.0 yards per carry per rush.  Against Princeton, that's a recipe for a resounding defeat.  There needs to be significant improvement in that area for the Mountain Hawks in order to escape with a win.

I get this feeling that Lehigh is pointed in the right direction.  I also get this feeling that Princeton and Lehigh are very evenly matched.  But that fact be enough to get the Mountain Hawks a big win in Princeton and catapult the Mountain Hawks back to the upper echelon of the Patriot League?

Lehigh 31, Princeton 35

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